Canada needs to strengthen international science collaboration to get back in the game

Mark Henderson
November 8, 2017

Canada needs a quick win to get back in the game of science diplomacy and international scientific collaboration as it prepares to hold the G7 presidency in 2018 and host the organization’s annual meeting next Spring. After boosting international activities in the 1990s, Canada has experienced a slow decline in its capacity to engage internationally, largely due to the lack of a coherent strategy, skill sets and funding to participate in efforts to address Increasingly complex global challenges such as climate change, energy use and food security.

Daryl Copeland, a science diplomacy specialist and former Canadian diplomat, participated in a panel discussion on the internationalization of science at the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference and was one of several speakers who urged policymakers to up their international game or suffer the consequences.

“I regret the fact that Canadian capacity to undertake science diplomacy is so meager … We could go to town on science diplomacy but we’re not even in the village,” said Copeland, a senior Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a policy fellow at the Univ of Montreal's Centre for International Studies (CERIUM). “Global Affairs Canada should be asked to come up with an international science strategy.”

Copeland says a quick win would be re-joining the Austrian-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). Canada was one of the international research organization’s co-founders in 1972 but withdrew in 1997 and is now being courted to return to the fold. Dr Pavel Kabat, IIASA’s DG and CEO, also participated in the panel and laid out the advantages of Canadian participation.

Kabat referred to the recent Fundamental Science Review (the Naylor report) which recommends additional support for international research. The report calls for “multi agency strategies to support international research collaborations and modify existing programs so as to strengthen international partnerships”. That includes dedicated funding for collaborations, improved mechanisms to collect and report data on international research activities and “proactive and coordinated efforts to engage with international funding partners to create opportunities for Canadian researchers”.

“The world is becoming increasingly complex and interdependent. Risks are becoming more systemic (and) there are no local issues anymore,” said Pavel, adding that crises like Brexit, the digital divide and the isolationist Trump presidency all call for a collective, unified response. “Our bridge building is needed more than ever before.”

Chibulu Luo, a Univ of Toronto doctoral candidate and participant in IIASA programs, says the organization’s systems approach to confronting global challenges is powerful, allowing her to work with global teams in areas such as sub Saharan Africa which is particularly vulnerable to the impact of energy security and climate change. Luo describes IIASA’s Young Scientists Summer Program as a “summer of research and cooperation” that helped provide her with new skill sets by harnessing science policy thinking in a real world environment.

While Canada is not an IIASA member, Canadian researchers and students like Luo have participated in IIASA programs and research activities on a one-off or ad hoc basis, suggesting that the organization’s value is recognized even in the absence of official member status. IIASA lobbied unsuccessfully in the late 1990s to bring Canada back into the fold (R$, December 2/98). Although the argument for withdrawal was ostensibly money (membership cost $1.3 million annually – an amount that has risen to $2 million) it was widely recognized that Canada’s policy weakness in international S&T was (and still is) a contributing factor, as was a blinkered policy emphasis on national S&T. At that time, government also largely ignored a recommendation from the National Advisory Board on S&T to strengthen international linkages to ensure that Canada remained on the leading edge of global S&T developments.

“The issue always comes back to leadership and commitment,” said Paul Dufour, principal of PaulicyWorks and an adjunct professor at the Univ of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy. “It makes no sense to me that Canada would not want to go back (to IIASA)."

Dufour noted that the recent announcement by Science minister Kirsty Duncan to install chief scientists in all relevant departments and agencies — including Global Affairs Canada (GAC) — is an encouraging sign that science is a priority with the current government and urged conference attendees to hold Duncan and other ministers accountable to the directives outlined in their mandate letters.

Copeland agrees and says that rejoining IIASA represents the kind of “low hanging fruit” that Canada must harvest quickly to raise the country’s international profile while it decides on next steps. He argued that the science component of GAC be reinvigorated after years of neglect and that the government follow through on its oft-stated commitment to science and research, especially by prime minister Justin Trudeau.

“At a certain point, someone is going to notice that the emperor has no clothes and at the moment it looks like that and I find that disturbing,” he said. “What are we going to put on the table? I’ve heard nothing. We need to wake up Global Affairs Canada. Its muscles are atrophying and its reflexes are dying. It needs to be catalyzed.”


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